With the World Cup just days away in Qatar, human rights activists fear the window to end the widespread exploitation of foreign workers may soon be closing.
The prolonged run-up to this month’s World Cup has brought unprecedented scrutiny to the Gulf Arab state’s treatment of millions of foreign workers who build stadiums and other infrastructure, run hotels and sweep streets during the world’s biggest sporting event. .
In front of severe international criticismQatar has implemented a series of reforms in recent years, including partially dismantling the system that links workers to employers and introducing a minimum wage – changes praised by the UN as well as rights groups.
But activists say abuses, from unpaid wages to harsh working conditions, are still widespread in one of the hottest countries on earth, and workers who are banned from forming unions or striking have few real avenues to seek justice.
They also worry about what will happen after the month-long tournament ends in December, with international attention and employers cutting wages.
Qatar says it is leading the region in labor reforms and that progress will continue after the World Cup. Official representatives of the ruling emir strongly criticized the criticsthey were accused of ignoring reforms and unfairly singling out the first Arab or Muslim country to host the cup.
Qatar, like other Gulf countries, relies on millions of foreign workers who make up the majority of the population and nearly 95% of the workforce – everything from high-paid corporate executives to construction workers.
Qatar has abolished much of the “kafala” system, which linked workers to employers and made it almost impossible to quit or change jobs without permission. But human rights activists say much of the system survives in various, informal ways.
Workers often have to take out loans and pay employment fees before they arrive. And employers can still revoke visas or file criminal charges against those who quit for “absconding.”
“If a migrant worker leaves a job that has not been paid for several months, there is a risk that the money will not be returned,” says Michael Page, a representative of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. Watch.
London-based labor rights group Equidem recently released a lengthy report documenting violations at more than a dozen World Cup hotels.it says workers from Africa and Asia face sexual harassment, discrimination, wage theft and health and safety risks.
According to Ella Knight, a researcher at Amnesty International in London, many migrants who work as security guards or domestic helpers go months or years without a day off at least once a week.
“Impunity remains a huge problem, so employers are not held accountable or punished to prevent abuses from happening again,” he said.
Qatari law prohibits workers from forming unions or holding protests, and authorities severely restrict media access to workers. Police arrested at least 60 workers went on strike in August over unpaid wages. Last year, two Norwegian reporters was arrested while providing information about migrant workers.
Malcolm Bidali, a Kenyan security official who wrote an anonymous blog about the plight of workers, was jailed for three months. — including 28 days in solitary confinement — and was fined $6,800 before leaving the country last year.
In the article about his ordealhe said Qatar’s reforms “look great” on paper, but the reality on the ground is different, with authorities more interested in silencing the opposition than punishing violent employers.
“I can’t help but wonder what awaits migrant workers after the World Cup,” he wrote. “What if workers still live in terrible conditions, if workers still go months without wages, if workers still cannot freely change jobs, if domestic workers still do not have access to justice, if no one is looking?”
Qatar has defended its reforms and said it will continue to protect workers’ welfare after the World Cup.
Ali Al-Ansari, Qatar’s media attaché in the US, said in a statement: “Qatar has always recognized that there is work to be done, particularly to hold unscrupulous employers accountable. “We’re seeing the number of violations decrease year-on-year as compliance among employers increases.”
Labor rights activists say Qatar must still pay compensation to workers on World Cup infrastructure projects until 2010, when reforms were passed. Amnesty believes that the authorities have failed to investigate the deaths of the workers in that period.
Amnesty and other rights groups are now urging soccer’s governing body, FIFA, to create a $440 million fund to compensate workers, equivalent to the tournament’s total prize money. FIFA has said it is open to the idea.
According to Al-Ansari, Qatar established its own fund in 2018 to compensate workers injured on the job or without wages. He did not comment directly on calls for a bigger defense fund.
Human Rights Watch’s Page said the Qatari authorities’ sizeable payments covering only claims in recent years underscore the importance of creating a larger fund to address “extremely serious violations” in the years before the reforms began. entered into force.
“If this is their position in the spotlight now, what will be their position after the World Cup on reforms and protection of migrant workers? “I think that’s a real concern,” he said.
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